Monday, January 22, 2018

Nonfiction | Musings of a Hollywood Mom

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For my first Read Harder Challenge category, I chose the celebrity memoir because after reading some really dense Gore Vidal (more on that later), I needed something light. In selecting a book for this category, I figured there were a few ways I could go: pick a person I knew and liked, thus mostly guaranteeing enjoyment; pick someone deep, complicated, and interesting that would be impressive in dinner conversation; or pick some total fluff, like a reality star, that I cared nothing about but forced me to really branch out from what I'd normally choose.

While I toyed with the idea of selecting the fine writing of some Real Housewife of the Jersey Shore, I preserved my sanity and chose a celebrity with a slightly deeper story: Drew Barrymore.

Barrymore's Wildflower follows in the same vein as most celebrity "memoirs" these days, in that it's more a collection of essays or anecdotes—"meaningful life moments"—than a real reflection of one's life. (I mean, how much life reflection can you share when you're only 42?) In Wildflower, the actress recollects her first experience of doing laundry, living on her own at age 14. She writes odes to the people she loves—friends, husband, in-laws, children, Adam Sandler—and how their stories began. She chronicles a multi-day outward bound trek taken with her Charlie's Angels co-stars after filming wrapped, and how nature nearly got the best of her. She writes about how her three rescue dogs ushered her into a responsible adulthood and how Steven Spielberg has been an unwavering source of support since her days on the set of E.T. And of course, no celebrity "memoir" would be complete without the reflection on the life-changing do-good trip to some third-world country. (I remember Amy Poehler's feeling so forced that I nearly quit reading.)

I chose this memoir because I thought that, in the game of celebrity memoirs where every witty or popular young-ish female seems to have been given a book deal, Drew Barrymore may have something more substantial to say. Less self-indulgent. More introspective, reflective, or thought-provoking. I mean, girl's been through some stuff.

That wasn't the case. I mean, I understand not wanting to dwell on one's past, especially one so colorful that has probably been rehashed often enough when you've personally moved on. But for someone with those experiences who has so clearly learned from them and made thoughtful decisions to build a very purposeful life since, completely avoiding those topics seems like such an omission, making these words she does share seem more trivial. It seems she wants to be open, sharing the importance of some of her life's little moments. But without facing the tough moments that brought her to this current level of peace and introspection, the stories she shares end up feeling like they just skim the surface.

Ultimately, most of her recollections felt so generic, they could've been written by and about anyone. Meeting in-laws and birthing children can be monumental milestones, but I'm not reading Drew Barrymore's story for the universal experience of how having a kid changes a person; I want to read the unique stories that have built her life and made her a person worth getting this book deal. Instead, I felt like an English teacher filling the margins of a student essay with red pen critique to "dig deeper."

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Riot's 2018 Read Harder Challenge

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It's a new year and time to start a new reading challenge! (Remember when I started the 2017 Read Diverse Challenge? Yeah, that one failed; I guess I needed the extra structure.)

Back at the start of 2015, I stumbled upon and began Book Riot's annual reading challenge. Though it ended up taking me more than a year to complete (errr...try two whole years...), I absolutely loved hunting down purposeful titles for each category that often took my outside my reading comfort zone. In fact, I've designed my staple school library reading program around the same categorical reading challenge, which gives students the choice to pick the titles they want.

Categories for the Book Riot 2018 Read Harder Challenge:

  1. A book published posthumously
  2. A book of true crime
  3. A classic of genre fiction
  4. A comic written and illustrated by the same person
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
  6. A book about nature
  7. A western
  8. A comic written or illustrated by a person of color
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color
  11. A children's classic published before 1980
  12. A celebrity memoir
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection
  14. A book of social science
  15. A one-sitting book
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
  18. A comic that isn't published by Marvel, DC, or Image
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation
  20. A book with a cover you hate
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author
  22. An essay anthology
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished)

This time, my goal is to actually finish it within the year!

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017: Year in Review

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2017 has been a year in flux! The 2016-2017 school year was pretty crappy, so January to May were spent surviving more than anything else. In March, I found out I was pregnant, so add 1st-trimester severe exhaustion to the end of that less-than-stellar school year. Summer vacation took us to Japan for our last big travel venture pre-baby; a new school year started in August, and my attention span began decreasing at a rapid rate with little one's impending arrival. We welcomed our little Luna into the world just a month ago, and the biggest surprise is how much I just want to stare at her! Everything I usually do to unwind—reading, writing, Netflix-watching—has become exponentially harder with this cute little bug around!

Somehow, I've still managed to turn some pages, though with a few changes. One, print books have taken a backseat, for the first time ever, to my Kindle. My main reading time is while nursing Luna, and I quickly discovered it's super difficult to keep a book open and turn pages with limited hand use. My Kindle's back-light is also proving invaluable during those late night sessions! Secondly, I'm suddenly okay with reading multiple books at once! I've gone through short story collections, memoirs, easier pleasure reading, and in-depth novels. You'd think my brain would have less mental capacity to keep multiple stories straight, but I think maybe it actually needs the variety!

Anyway, since I have so rarely used this space to record my reading encounters [I have, however, taken to posting shorter thoughts and summaries in Goodreads], I thought I'd do my year-end summary with a write-up on some of my more memorable reading experiences of the year.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  ||  I read this in April for the library book club that I (regrettably) have not attended since the summer. It's the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths eventually cross during the chaos and destruction of World War II. For a book that was initially incredibly daunting to me (520+ pages, oof; WW II history, yawn), I ended up breezing through it, fully engrossed. I believe that's thanks to its multiple storylines and especially its quick chapters of alternating stories; we are able to follow each's story of survival in great detail. If the author had told this story chronologically, or shared only one piece or perspective, it would have made for a very monotonous novel. Instead, we are graced with a beautifully detailed piece on humanity that is never bogged down by either detail or gravitas. What the author does, HOW he tells this story, is actually a bit magical when you consider how terribly wrong it could have been done. The characters are all full, all entirely human, all just small pieces to this big puzzle of the war. Very, very well done.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky  ||  This is not the first time I've read this novel; I read it twice back in high school/college and, like most emo teens, I adored it. This was my first time reading it, though, as a bona fide a d u l t. It was also my first time reading it with a group of middle schoolers, and that experience is the reason it's on my most memorable list! For some backstory: I've had a group of now-8th graders that joined my library-sponsored book club when they were 6th graders and enjoyed it so much they began planning their own books for us to read as a group. Twice they've selected a book, and my job has been to hunt down enough copies for all and help them with discussion. In the spring (when they were 7th graders), the group of about six girls voiced a desire to read Perks, so I gathered the copies and started re-reading with them. WELL. This book was MUCH heavier than I remember! I've seen the movie version a zillion times (maaaaybe one of my two cases where I like the movie better than the book), and it's entirely PG-13. The book, however, is a lot darker with a lot more mature subject matter—alcohol, drugs, abortion, date rape, molestation. After some serious panic on my part, at our first group discussion I quickly established our meetings as a safe space to ask questions and talk about these issues, if they so desired. What began as a concern (is this appropriate for 13-year-olds??) ended up being a wonderful forum for these kids (I think, I hope) and one of my proudest moments as an educator. We discussed issues with privacy and full confidence; I spoke to parents when I was concerned about exposure of certain topics; and I discovered the wide range of how much kids at this age know—some seem to know it all, some still very naive. In the end, I think it established a great deal of trust amongst our group and, with these students heading to high school at the end of this school year, I am going to seriously miss them. Also, perhaps Perks should wait until at least 8th grade!

Velvet Underground by Teri Brown  ||  A random eBook check-out during my summer travels...For a YA book, this story had an uncommon setting (Europe during WWI) and uncommon plot (espionage) which made it a delightful surprise. The main character, Samantha, is a smart, cunning British seventeen-year-old who is recruited for a spy network and sent to "save" a troubled agent in Germany. With little information to go on, she must put the pieces together herself and determine what's truth and what's a lie. The end reveal was a bit Scooby Doo-esque (obvious in that "And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!" way), with the villain's motive slightly TOO explained. As you know, I love the pure entertainment of middle grade/YA, but I liked this so much because it was unexpectedly different in its premise—not romancey, not friend drama, not fantasy, not school-based conflict or hijinx. Overall, a very fun adventure.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman  ||  I was invited to join a librarian friend's book club (an offer at which I enthusiastically jumped!), and this was the selection for my first meeting which was scheduled about three days after I received the invite. I binged it mostly over the course of a weekend and...errr, wow. I'd heard of this story, but had no idea what it was about. It's weird. And genre-defying. It's got fantasy, mythology, horror. magical realism. It's got an engrossing plot, though I was never quite confident in the story I was following. It's an allegory on the old versus the new, diversity versus homogeneity. The more commentary I read, the more I've thought about it over the course of the past several months, I wonder if my easy response of "I just didn't get it" is actually discrediting to myself. I think perhaps I did "get" it; it just wasn't particularly impactful to me. It brings up more questions than it answers, is open to much too much interpretation. I think, perhaps, it was just not for me.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult  ||  Another book club selection, one that I was NOT initially enthused to read. [I have refused to read Picoult since I read My Sister's Keeper and threw the book across the room upon completion.] The story of a newborn, child of white supremacists, who dies while under the care of an African-American nurse who was instructed to not touch the child. Could she have saved him? Is she at fault? It's formulaic like all Picoult novels—well-researched, thoroughly-written, exploring the gray area of conflicted situations. It has its weaknesses (pulling out EVERY trope of racial microaggressions), to which I absolutely rolled my eyes at in the beginning. Who is Picoult, this privileged white woman, to write with this voice? But then I thought about it. And I read some reactions. And I read Picoult's author's note at the end. And, most importantly, I considered this story within its literary context. See here: I am what I am. I am an affluent white woman. I try to be pretty "woke" about it—aware of my privilege, my perception, and cognizant of the experiences of people in my community that are different than myself. Therefore, as a "woke" liberal, I was aware of Picoult's examples of modern racism, considering them too easy of examples, too stereotypical. Of course, that's insulting; of course, that's racism. Delve into the complexitiesthat's what needs to be explored and addressed! The thing is, not everyone is me. Picoult's primary audience is not me. To them, maybe these instances aren't so obvious; maybe they need pointing out, as basic as they seem. That's what changed my opinion—considering the message of this book and its intended audience. And if this book serves that role, if it causes some middle-American suburban book club-goer to question interactions, to think deeper about these things, to "wake up" to a reality they've rarely considered, then I applaud its intent.

And lastly...

  • 70 total books
  • 41 children's/YA titles
  • 5 nonfiction (yikes, I didn't realize—how dismal!)\
  • 7 chunksters (hefty page count and/or daunting complexity, subject, language, etc.)
  • 6 graphic novels
  • 2 re-reads

Most engrossing: The Diviners by Libba Bray, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Most boring: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Most memorable: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

Most forgettable: A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Most enjoyable: Great With Child by Beth Ann Fennelly, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Most gratifying: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

Most disappointing: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer